Offbeat. That’s the word I keep coming back to when I think about this black comedy, written and directed by Riley Stearns. Offbeat and surreal. Not totally realistic, but more like realism-adjacent. The film is a withering assault on the culture of toxic masculinity, and it is not subtle in the least about its target. It stars Jesse Eisenberg, the contemporary master of affecting nervous energy in films like American Ultra, The Squid and the Whale, and even the brilliant The Social Network. Eisenberg has never really stretched himself outside of this archetype, but I wouldn’t say he needs to. He finds vast expanses of range within it, and he employs them to full force here. You can see his talent in his eyes when he apologizes to his dog for running out of food, in his smile when he finds his calling in karate class, and in his body language when he is handing belts to his karate instructor.
The film makes interesting decisions even from its opening moments. Surely you’ve seen that game that people play in movies? Where they sit in a public place, watch people, and make up lives and stories for the people around them? At the start of this movie, two very minor characters (seriously, we never return to these people) are playing this game aimed at our main character. But they are speaking in French. Here is where a different movie would have Eisenberg’s character reveal that he speaks fluent French and leave them shocked. That would be our introduction to the character. This film, however, has Eisenberg not react at all. The scene ends, and THEN we learn that he is indeed learning French. Did he know enough to know the couple were mocking him? We don’t know for sure. But it doesn’t matter. The scene worked as our introduction to the character anyway.
We follow Casey (Eisenberg) as he goes to work and is disrespected by his coworkers, goes home where he lives a lonely life with his dog, and then goes to the store. On his way back from the store, he is violently beaten by a motorcycle gang and left for dead. This leaves the man understandably traumatized and searching for ways to feel safe. He tries to buy a gun and is thwarted by the 30-day waiting period. Then he comes upon a karate dojo. This is where the film kicks into gear. We meet our second main character, Sensei, played to smooth-talking perfection by Alessandro Nivola. It is with Sensei’s introduction that we come to realize the main thrust of the film; its attack on the way men interact with each other, with women, with the world itself. Imogen Poots plays the lone woman in the class and, very pointedly, the toughest student. She is forced to bear the brunt of Sensei’s “woman this, woman that” putdowns with steely nerves and an intense gaze. She has to overplay tough, but still subtly convey the vulnerability underneath to us, but not to the other students in the class. She pulls it off effortlessly.
“I want to be what intimidates me.”
The script by Stearns also deserves praise. It draws comparison to the work of another writer-director, Yorgos Lanthimos. Lanthimos’s excellent The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer employ a kind of stilted, mechanical dialogue. There’s little to no subtext, characters often say exactly what they mean, and it cuts right to the heart of the characters themselves. It’s very purposeful. The dialogue in The Art of Self-Defense is not as robotic as those films, but it’s similar. Wes Anderson is another filmmaker whose dialogue is purposefully on-the-nose in that way. Sensei spouts his manly-man rhetoric baldly and unapologetically, but he frames it as toughness. He reads Casey immediately and tailors his worldview to worm its way into the other man’s psyche. Before long, he has Casey changing his taste in music and the language he’s trying to learn, all in the interest of being tougher; more like a man.
Everything about this film is surreal. The dialogue, the action, even the ending is crazy as hell. The acting of the main cast is subtle but amazing in its range. It all comes together in one of the funniest black comedies of the last few years, and also one of the most acidic in its attack on toxic masculinity.